A rising chorus is once again demanding that America become energy independent. Indeed, more Americans express concern about our dependence on Middle East oil than about the ballooning Republican budget deficit. Every time John Kerry talked about it, crowds went wild.
Voters care so much because the issue touches so many aspects of our national agenda.
Today energy is, foremost, a national-security issue. More than half our oil comes from dictatorships whose citizens hate the United States as much as they hate their own rulers. Republicans who keep us dependent on oil are undermining the security of our country.
This is also a pocketbook issue. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say high gasoline prices are causing them financial hardship. Whom do Americans blame for high gas prices? Seventy-nine percent blame American oil companies, and 77 percent blame foreign oil producers. The president, though, is catching up fast, with 65 percent placing blame on the Bush administration.
Energy also has a clear environmental component. Burning oil pollutes our air, and voters know it — 63 percent believe our environment is getting worse.
Finally, energy could be a jobs issue. Someone will have to develop and build the energy-efficient cars of the future. Someone is going to have to develop and sell the alternative energy sources of the future. Republicans are doing their best to ensure that it is not us.
Indeed, increasing our national security, protecting our air, creating jobs and promoting alternative forms of energy consistently rate as the most important goals for an energy bill.
Republicans argue that increased domestic drilling and more tax breaks for oil companies are the panaceas. Hence the House energy bill provides 95 percent of its tax incentives to traditional energy sources such as oil, gas and coal.
Even President Bush understands how misguided House Republicans are on this score. “With $55 oil, we don’t need incentives to oil and gas companies,” the president said. It is unconscionable that Republicans are offering $3 billion of our money to oil companies that have already taken quite enough of it.
But Americans reject the Republican approach at an even more fundamental level. Voters recognize that we cannot drill our way to energy independence. Only 19 percent say the best way to solve our energy problem is to increase U.S. drilling, while 71 percent express a preference for either alternative energy sources or increased efficiency. Sixty-two percent believe loosening restrictions on drilling and tax incentives for exploration and production will not increase our security because there will always be more oil in the Middle East than there is here.
Voters endorse a variety of means to wean the country from its debilitating oil addiction. Seventy percent support an Apollo project to invest billions of dollars over a 10-year period to develop new fuels and provide incentives to help Americans use energy more efficiently. Some 70 percent also support stricter fuel-efficiency standards, including 66 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of pickup-truck drivers. An identical number favor requiring power companies to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from alternative energy sources.
Indeed, the few approaches most Americans oppose are precisely the core of the Republican strategy — expand domestic drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and offer more tax breaks for oil companies.
When this country started discussing energy independence 30 years ago, we imported 35 percent of our oil. Today we import 56 percent, and if we accept what the Republicans are offering we will import 68 percent of our oil in 2025. At that point some investigative commission will no doubt decry this Congress for weakening America by failing to do the simple things that everyone knew at the time would have made our nation and our children more secure.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.